Before the Boom: Re-Watching the 2002 WSOP

2002wsop showtitle

The poker world changes so rapidly it’s easy to lose track of the passage of time.

Thus was it startling recently to note we’d already arrived at the 10th anniversary of amateur Robert Varkonyi’s surprise win at the 2002 World Series of Poker Main Event.

There’s an added layer of nostalgia attached to any “pre-boom” memory in poker, especially when it comes to the WSOP.

Such is the case when looking back at ESPN’s coverage of the 2002 WSOP Main Event -- the last before the World Poker Tour premiered, Chris Moneymaker’s ME victory and the online game’s sudden explosion in popularity.

Poker's Place in Mainstream Dwindling

It’s easy to forget that as the 2002 WSOP was playing out, poker’s place in mainstream popular culture had receded to a point where ESPN hadn’t even covered the Series for several years.

After intermittently producing one-hour highlight shows from the late 1980s through 1998, ESPN had stepped aside from 1999-2001 while the Discovery Channel produced its own one-hour WSOP shows.

The WSOP itself was in somewhat dire straits as well by 2002. In fact, the successful-out-of-the-gate WPT would soon be making an offer to buy up the WSOP altogether -- and at a bargain-basement price, too.

Rob Varkonyi
Certain aspects of the show are familiar.

Everything would change soon thereafter, however, with Moneymaker’s win and the ratings success of the expanded, seven-part ESPN presentation of the 2003 WSOP ME.

In 2002, ESPN edited the almost eight-hour final table into a two-hour package. Lon McEachern made his debut as play-by-play anchor while Gabe Kaplan provided color commentary as he had done for past WSOPs. (Norman Chad would arrive in the booth the following year.)

Watching the broadcast 10 years later, certain aspects of the show are familiar. But much is different as well, with some of the differences indicating how much poker and the WSOP have evolved over the past decade.

Sneak Peeks Instead of Hole Cameras

A big change from ESPN’s previous coverage of the WSOP was the inclusion of what McEachern and Kaplan refer to as “sneak peeks” of players’ hole cards during the two dozen or so hands shown.

While not using hole-card cameras, players’ cards are revealed via onscreen graphics -- although only after a hand makes it to heads-up.

In fact, savvy viewers will notice immediately how whenever cards are shown prior to a hand’s completion, that indicates we'll be seeing the cards eventually either at showdown or when players’ make known their hands after folding.

For example, in the very first hand of the final table when we see Varkonyi has pocket nines we already know he’ll be showing down that hand, as he ultimately does after calling an all-in and losing to Julian Gardner’s pocket aces.

The WSOP = The Main Event

During the two-hour show comes little mention of the days leading up to the final table and only once in passing a reference to how 34 other events had played out prior to the ME.

All would change soon in that regard, with both expanded coverage of the ME’s earlier days and attention given to other WSOP events as well.

Such neglect of everything but the final table helps create one curious moment when McEachern does briefly allude to the preliminary events.

2002wsop ivey
Three bracelets but no time for Ivey.

As those with an interest in WSOP well know, 2002 was a breakout year for Phil Ivey as he won no less than three bracelet events during that Series.

Ivey additionally made a deep run in the Main Event, ultimately falling in 23rd not long after losing a most unfortunate hand to Shipley in which Ivey flopped a set of threes against Shipley’s top pair with A-K, then running aces gave Shipley four of a kind.

Despite his historic WSOP performance, no mention is made of Ivey at all during the broadcast.

However, when McEachern talks about players coming out for the earlier events Ivey suddenly appears among the crowd of players descending the escalator at the Horseshoe -- unmistakably familiar to us today, though just a face in the crowd to many of those watching back when the show first aired.

Indeed, the 2002 WSOP ME show itself was really just another block of programming tucked away on ESPN’s schedule, hardly noteworthy at the time.

Looking back 10 years later, however, shows it to have been something more -- a prelude of sorts to the most remarkable decade in poker’s history.

Playing for High Stakes on a Small Stage

As all who remember the WSOP in its pre-Rio days can attest, the intimate feel of the Series at Binion’s -- even during these latter, somewhat turbulent days for the Horseshoe -- is perhaps the most obvious difference between then and now.

In the ESPN broadcast there are a few fleeting references to the WSOP’s history, including a bit of marveling at how the Series had grown since 1970.

“Amarillo Slim” Preston turns up at one point and when he’s asked to compare the Series’ early days to what it had become in 2002 says he “couldn’t envision it.”

Of course, for those of us watching today, the field of 631 entering the 2002 Main Event seems relatively “intimate” compared to what we’ve become accustomed to at the WSOP.

Phil Hellmuth
Ate his words, shaved his head.

While there’s certainly an element of spectacle present, at its heart the 2002 WSOP ME broadcast chronicles what was still a relatively modest-seeming affair, with the bricks of cash being brought to the table in cardboard boxes and a crowd of dozens, not hundreds.

Amateurs vs. Pros

The 2002 Main Event final table featured three players designated “amateurs” by the commentators -- Varkonyi, Russell Rosenblum and Harley Hall.

Meanwhile, among the six pros John Shipley of the U.K. carried a massive lead to the final table with more than 2 million chips, well ahead of second-place Rosenblum’s 927,000.

Comments by Kaplan and others -- including Phil Hellmuth (one of many visitors turning up along the way) -- show the divide between the amateurs and pros to be of particular significance.

Although amateurs had won the Main Event several times before, pros continued to be favored by those handicapping the event. thus inspiring Hellmuth to comment “It’s going to be very difficult for any amateur to come in here and win … It’s not like they've put in the hours and the toil and the sweat.”

That position, coupled with Hellmuth’s displeasure at having been all but knocked out of the ME earlier by Varkonyi, then led to the Poker Brat’s infamous proclamation that he’d shave his head should the amateur from New York win.

That ceremony punctuates the broadcast, of course, and still brings grins a decade later.

As we know, Varkonyi’s win would launch a string of amateur ME winners at the WSOP with pros soon being outnumbered in the field at large and at final tables for the next several years running.

Not a Strategy Seminar

As far as the play is concerned, most of the hands shown consist of double-ups and knockouts with Varkonyi’s good fortune at picking up strong hands at opportune times emerging as a theme.

Gabe Kaplan
Not a fan of marginal call.

For instance, three-handed we see Julian Gardner dealt pocket tens, Ralph Perry a pair of jacks and Varkonyi two aces. The hand ends with Perry going out in third.

That said, Kaplan does introduce some strategy talk into the show with the turning point of the final table -- leader Shipley’s loose call with AJ-offsuit of a Varkonyi four-bet shove -- earning a lot of scrutiny.

Kaplan explains at length how Shipley’s call is “marginal” at best -- he commits about half of his stack when it appears almost certain Varkonyi is at least as strong as the pocket jacks he holds -- and in the end characterizes the call as “unbelievable.”

Varkonyi’s hand held and Shipley wouldn’t recover from the hit, soon going out in seventh.

Meanwhile, Varkonyi would use those chips to help carry him through to beat Gardner heads-up and earn the $2 million first prize.

Just as that hand stands out at the final table, so, too, does the strategy talk during the broadcast.

Kaplan does provide further explanation along the way of players’ thinking, but we’re still some distance away from the relatively sophisticated discussions punctuating more recent coverage of the WSOP, including that of ESPN.

Watch the full 2002 WSOP final-table broadcast below:

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